When writing about art, I am reminded of the phrase “writing about music is a bit like dancing about architecture.” And before I mix my metaphors too far, I think you get my point. It’s difficult for expressive mediums to communicate something about contrasting mediums, without losing something in the process. Not that one medium is superior over another, but because they are simply different beasts. So instead we talk about it, approaching it from certain angles, hopefully casting a light on its different and shifting facets. That’s the most I can do with Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme * An Illustrated Panorama.
In this successful attempt at a Bayuex-like tapestry, Sacco details over the course of a 24 foot length black and white graphic narrative, the build up, first day of battle, and aftermath one of World War One’s most significant moments. Each panel flows into the next, packed with thoroughly researched details, masses of soldiers and supplies, filing into the arterial-like trenches, moving towards the hope of a decisive push into No Man’s Land, with concluding panels weighed down with the immense cost of this bloody battle, which has only just begun.
This book can be read in a couple ways, either by flipping through the panels one by one or spreading out the entire work on the floor. Either way you read it still has impact. The work also includes a booklet, with an introduction by Sacco, along with an annotated version of the foldout providing details to look for in the larger work. In addition there is an essay by Adam Hocshchild about the Battle of the Somme, adapted from his history To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, that reminds one of how damn bloody this battle was.
There is one particular aspect of this book which I found interesting. Self described as an “Illustrated Panorama,” I wonder if that label actually captures what I was seeing in the work itself. The word “panorama” gives the sense of standing in one place, while moving a camera over the course of a large area, hopefully capturing it all in one piece. But I would argue that Sacco’s Great War is not actually a panorama. The view point of the reader/viewer is one of NOT standing in one place as the events unfold over the course of the panels. In actuality, from panel to panel, along with time passing, certain perspectives change, and the reader/viewer actually moves forward into the landscape until the climax panels in No Man’s Land, after which the perspective starts to recede backwards to the front line as the narrative unfolds. I would argue that a more apt description would be “perspective-rama,” but that sounds too clunky and even then doesn’t fully describe the conflation of narrative, time, and perspective that is taking place seamlessly throughout the work.
One thing I would have liked more about this work is having the viewpoint not solely from the British side. It would have been fascinating to see the panels unfold over the battle and we eventually ended up on the German side. Considering that the most popular novel about WWI was German – All Quiet on the Western Front – I think it was a missed opportunity for Sacco to illustrate the enemy and see the contrasts and humanity of the soldiers on both sides of the violence. Despite this, the work stil succeeds.
With the 100th anniversary memorial of WWI coming up this year, Sacco’s Great War won’t replace any of the tremendous histories that have come out recently. But if you are not one to read history much, spending an hour or two with Sacco’s art will give you a brief sense of why this war still casts a long shadow over the last century.